On Enmity and Empathy

When I was at university, my favourite class was a sociology seminar called Sex and Gender. It wasn't a course anyone with strong negative views about women's rights, say, or homosexuality would have signed up for but, listening to the students speak, you would never have known we were (presumably) all left wing liberals.

Each week, the class was presented with a statement such as "Sex before marriage is a sin" or "Real men don't show emotion". Half of us were told to agree with the statement, half to disagree. We were then given seven days to research the arguments for our assigned attitudes before coming back and having a debate.

It wasn't easy, reading up on points of view I deeply disagreed with - it was particularly difficult to voice and defend beliefs I didn't hold - but it was an incredibly powerful lesson.

Like so many people - like, I think, most people - I was very certain of my own opinions but without having ever really scrutinised them. I knew, for example, that I supported gay rights because duh, I'm a good person - why wouldn't I? But I wasn't in any position to defend that belief; I didn't have the facts or the figures or even just the rhetoric to fend off an attack.

More importantly, I didn't have the facts or the figures or even just the rhetoric to change anybody else's mind. My take on homophobia was, quite simply, "It's wrong." And nobody's mind has ever been changed by such a flimsy (and, to them, insulting) argument.

To influence people's opinions, you have to understand why they hold them. In this example, that means accepting that homophobes are not (generally) inherently bad people - most of them are just scared. They're scared of being alienated if they go against their crowd; they've been taught that non-procreative sex is a sin and can't get past that; they fear that being gay would relegate their child to a life of bullying and beatings; their only experience of gay people is big, noisy rallies which they found terrifying to walk past; and so on. It's only by understanding their fears that we can hope to alleviate them and potentially change their minds.

In my last job, my main task was to research and write a magazine showcasing local charities. I must have spoken to fifty or sixty different organisations over the years and every single one of them was inspiring in its own way. But what really struck me was the compassion which the majority of them showed not just to their clients but to the friends and families of their clients and, perhaps most notably, to the people who wished their clients harm.

They all understood that to raise awareness - to gain the public support and to raise the funds they needed - they couldn't go around telling people, "You're flat out nasty because you don't like single mothers/homeless people/drug addicts/people with disabilities/starving cats." They had to look at the reasons why the public was scared or suspicious or dismissive of their clients and work to address those, often deeply ingrained, beliefs.

Empathy is something which we on the left like to think that we're good at. We're nice people. We support equal rights and the alleviation of poverty. Our core value is that everybody deserves dignity. We are good people. We may not be so smug as to say it, but we believe that our opinions make us better than those bigots on the right.

But I think that this can be a dangerous attitude to have. It might be easy to assume that everyone on the right is naive, uneducated and overly influenced by the tabloid press but there are plenty of very intelligent, very successful people over there, firmly convinced of their own intolerant attitudes. If we don't understand their desire to protect their families or their deeply ingrained belief that we are each responsible for fulfilling our own goals or simply their blissful lack of awareness of just how quickly and how easily life can become tough for people who don't have a big, thick cushion of savings, we can't hope to make them understand our own side of the story.

Too often, I see smart people, empathic people on the left dismiss anyone who holds an opposing view as "evil". That's it. That's the whole argument. The wrongness of the other person's beliefs is so clear to us that anyone who can't see that must be inherently bad.

But if a person is inherently bad, what hope is there of changing them? If we dismiss a huge chunk of the population as either "evil" or stupid, we rule out any chance of influencing their opinions; it's only when we accept that most people mean well that we can hope to change their view of what "well" means or of which groups to extend that good will to.

And, increasingly, I'm seeing those of us over here on the left being swept up in lazy generalisations and social media hysteria.

There are accepted views we are expected to hold. We know, without question, that big corporations are bad (even when they treat their staff well and have laudable charitable campaigns) and that local stores are good (even when they take a rather loose approach to employment law and taxation). We simultaneously believe that something must be done to tackle the severe housing shortage (doesn't the government care about the homeless?) and that all new housing projects are ugly and unwelcome (not on my doorstep!). Certainly, in Aberdeen, there is a belief that anything the city council suggests must be a deeply flawed idea (although why all of the councillors would be so intent on destroying the city they live in, I'm not entirely sure).

And there are knee jerk reactions all over Twitter. We are quick to attack when visible feminists don't phrase their arguments exactly how we would have phrased ours. There is outrage when we think supermarkets are profiting by exploiting war veterans or by trying to sell us "ideal for the foodbank!" canned goods followed by quiet retreat when we realise that these were well intended campaigns run in conjunction with national charities. Too often I see people explode with rage at politicians or celebrities only to realise that they've been taken in by a prank account or a quote is being tweeted around out of context.

So what am I saying?

I'm saying let's slow down. Let's fact check before we retweet. Let's find in depth articles which explore the situation before we accept a 140 character statement at face value. Let's question every negative assertion and character assassination before we make it public.

But mostly, let's work from an assumption that most people mean no harm.

Sure, some of them are selfish or intolerant of others because they don't see that those others are real human beings with their own need to protect their own loved ones. But, equally, we need to understand that people with opposing views are real human beings with their own need to protect their own loved ones.

Insulting them isn't going to change that. Nor should it. We shouldn't be expecting anybody to stop caring about their own friends and family; what we should be doing is encouraging them to widen the circle of people that they consider worthy of protection and to question their perceptions of threat.

And, no, I know that patience and empathy won't change every mind, either. I've had enough debates to know how stubbornly views are held - theirs; yours; my own. But if we want the country - the world - to be a better, more empathic, more supportive place, then we need to be better, more empathic and more supportive.

You don't lead by telling someone, "You're evil." You lead by setting a good example. If the right's good example is getting rid of everything they perceive to be a threat, our good example is facing up to the scary stuff and saying, "Turns out we're all just human after all."


  1. I love reading your thoughts on this, and you're totally right. I think humans are hardwired to make easy decisions - we aren't always great at shades of grey. I read something once about how humans are also hardwired to not capitulate even if they are losing an argument. In fact arguing with people is often the best way to make them feel stronger about their own feelings. I think the internet has only made this worse because as you said, people can feel like they're doing something just by Sharing a post on Facebook or Retweeting.

  2. Wow, yes! You've inspired me to start thinking deeper into WHY I believe what I believe. It is really important to look at everything from multiple viewpoints if you can.

  3. That sounds about right! I know how much I hate to back down from an argument!

  4. Awesome - I think it's so important to see both sides.

  5. I love this, but to be honest it shames me a bit! I like to think I'm non-judgmental and accepting of other people's opinions, and on the whole, I probably am, but when its something I'm absolutely passionate about, I do have to bite my tongue sometimes, and I'm guilty of thinking thoughts like 'what sort of person must they be if they think *that*?' I'm better at backing down in an argument that I used to be, but its still hard not to judge the other person sometimes.

    Saying that, I do manage to avoid any twitter/other social media witch hunts. I totally realise that things can be taken out of context and that often people get outraged just for the sake of being outraged about something.

  6. But - exactly! There are certain attitudes and beliefs that I just CANNOT accept are okay - a part of me will be judging the person who holds them. It's just more productive (and more interesting) to try to figure out why they think the way they do than to storm off in disgust!

  7. This is an excellent article! Well written and very true. And I've often been involved in a conversation where I can see both sides and feel incredibly uncomfortable about what is being said!


    Kezzie AG

  8. Basically yes, yes and yes again. Yes to absolutely all of this. Often, some of the reactions on Twitter to one person's opinion can be hideous and awful to watch and if there was any way of taking your 'let's slow down' paragraph and making everyone read it before they tweeted, that would be excellent. xx

  9. Ha ha! Maybe we could develop some sort of Twitter plugin...?


Please play nice.